Black dogs and mental illness

Trigger warning: suicide, mental illness.

I was sad to hear the news of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade and Tim Bergman. Not because I was a sincerely devoted fan, but because I think it’s a terrible thing to end one’s life. There’s a biblical amount of suffering that goes into that decision, and it’s a horrible shame because the sad truth is, more often than not something could have been done to prevent it.

Suicide rates rates are on the rise in the United States. Anxiety and panic disorders are becoming more common in Europe. Is there an increasing amount of sadness around the world, or are we just getting better at recognizing and labeling tabooed topics and feelings? And if we are evolving, why is it still so difficult to find and give help?

I do believe we all are familiar with the concept of sadness and loneliness. Metaphors have been given to us for ages. J.K. Rowling has based the monstrous dementors on her depression. Van Gogh painted The Scream to give a face to his anxiety. Winston Churchill is rumored to have likened his depression to a black dog that faithfully would follow him anywhere.

But it still seems to be a struggle to normalize the idea of mental illness. We’re still thinking of it in terms of stereotypes and stigma, when it in reality can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons and appear with many different symptoms. Mental illness seems to be like love; something most people believe in, but don’t recognize when it’s right in front of them.

Mental illness seems to be like love; something most people believe in, but don’t recognize when it’s right in front of them.

I’ve been depressed. I have had panic attacks. I still struggle with anxiousness from time to time. Slow and steady wins the race, though, and I’ve been okay for a few years now. I never thought I’d have a black dog by my side again, metaphoric or corporeal. But just the other night I thought “I’m bored and wish something to happen”, so I went for a bike ride. And as I was enjoying the sunset rolling down the street towards the marina, a black dog crosses the road in front of me and runs into the woods.

An actual black dog. No metaphors. Yet.

Behind me was a busy highway and nobody passing by seemed keen on giving her any attention, so I got off my bike and trailed after her. She had her tail tucked between her legs and her ears were low; she shun away from every movement. As I walked after her in a slower pace, I looked at the jumpy canine and came to think of Churchill’s alleged black dog.

Everyone feels anxious, lonely and overwhelmed at some point. But feeling that way on a regular basis is exhausting. It will literally mess with your head. If you’re unlucky, you might become this impaired shadow version of yourself. That’s okay. It happens. And when it does, you just might need some help. Just like a frightened runaway dog.

Eventually, the one I followed stopped running. I called by boyfriend for help, and we caught her with the help of kind words and dried chicken.

According to the World Health Organization one out of every fourth person suffers from some kind of mental illness at some point in their lives. The vast majority, however, never reach out for help or treatment because of the stigma surrounding the topic. Even after all our talking and sharing, it still seem a bit shameful to be a little broken.

But it’s not.

An illness of any kind is just a sign that the body or the mind has taken a hit, and needs some time to recover. Few of us would feel ashamed or guilty for getting a broken bone set, or taking time off work because of the flu. But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Take a moment and imagine that Churchill had an actual black dog following him, paws and tail and all. It would be much easier to help each other if we were able to see these one out of every four people with their black dogs faithfully trailing behind them, but since we can’t, our basic human decency and empathy will have to do.

If you are one of these unwilling dog owners, know that you’re not alone. Don’t fight the fact that you have a dog. Acknowledge that the dog is there, and that you’re doing everything you can to housebreak it. The dog isn’t dangerous. It’s scared. It just needs to be understood and cared for. Don’t we all?

I’m afraid no one saw, or wanted to see, the black dogs that followed Anthony, Kate and Tim and too many others. I’m just hoping that sooner rather than later people will start picking up on the shadows of those dogs when they seem them, instead of hoping they’ll go away. At some point, they will go away at a terrible price.

Anthony, Kate, Tim, I hope you’re feeling better now without your black dogs. I know I do.

Once we’d done everything trying to locate the owner, it was way past midnight, so we took her back to our house for the night. After we dried and fed her, you wouldn’t have recognized her. Her tail was wagging; she was gladly giving out kisses; she even found a ball to play with. It was a very different black dog from the one I’d seen earlier.

I got to return her the following morning. She was excited to go back home. And as I watched her wagging tail walk away, I realized that sometimes the only – and best – thing you can give someone is your time and attention.

Turns out, it’s not so hard to help someone. It just takes a little kindness. I think we all can afford that. Dog or no dog.


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